Looking Back at My Experiences Volunteering at Foundation Farm in the Fall of 2014

In this post I’ll explore food and why not just organic, but sustainable food production is a key capstone to a sustainable life.

As we explore alternatives to conventional agricultural systems which are part of agribusiness, we need to consider that current economic social and technological frameworks of organizing resources in modern societies discourage real shifts towards sustainable healthy living.

However, neither organic or sustainable farming systems are realistically configured to replace the current grossly unsustainable agribusiness food production complex. So thus we need to consider this reality as we advocate more sustainable systems of food production.

I want to talk about my main experience with produce farming (other than working in the Arcosanti greenhouse from 2009-12). It involved spending several months volunteering at Patrice Gros’ Foundation Farm, in the winter of 2014/15.

Patrice has decided to take a break from farming and he is now working at a culinary school in Bentonville Arkansas. He’s working in procurement and in an effort to source supplies from local farms when possible. His long-term wish is to get back into farming at some point, focusing on highly compact and intensive farming practices.

Despite its small size, Eureka Springs, is a mecca for people seeking an alternative lifestyle nestled in the Ozark Highland Plateau. There are some unusual amenities for a town its size (pop 2100). This includes things like a health food store and not one but two farmer’s markets, several “Farm to Table” restaurants and several weekly newspapers.

Patrice told me as we got to know each other that he started out on the non-farm path working in corporate finance in San Francisco Bay Area. He gradually realized that his calling was farming, getting his hands dirty working the earth and making it fertile.

In 2007, he established Foundation Farm, his third farm, on 6 acres of land about 10 miles north of Eureka Springs. The Farm is located on a county road just off AR State Highway 23 right on the border with Missouri.

The farm included several open ended hoop greenhouses. These were used for much of the year, but especially needed in the cooler times of the year.

Patrice is a follower of several well known sustainable farmers including Eliot Coleman who pioneered cold weather farming techniques at his Four Season Farm in the Northern US. Joel Salatin is also an influence, popularizing the idea of introducing aquaculture principles into commercial agriculture.

Patrice practiced No Till Farming at Foundation Farm – which I knew very little about until I came across his farm. The benefits are that you do not disturb the soil. This of course this reduces the amount of energy needed to run the farm and need for large equipment to plow and till the soil. To address the weed problem he uses a lot of wheat straw for mulch. This has multiple benefits of not only fertilizing the soil but also reducing the weed problems.

Since we have been trained to see certain things like cultivation, the use of mechanized equipment as the necessary progress of modernization, its sometimes hard for us to consider no-till alternative farming techniques as practical or viable. No doubt its still hard for us to imagine producing a significant amount of food for the bulk of humanity in this way, but much of that is because so few people farm today not because the land is not available used for other things like parks, golf courses, lawns and cemeteries.

What this is really about is not just organic food but the building of healthy, sustainable, locally owned and oriented food systems:

  • Small human scale farming systems for communities to grow more of their own food rather than rely on supply chains and corporate systems that do not reflect their collective values
  • Putting power back in the communities that historically made up the backbone of societies
  • Feeling good about what you do
  • Eating healthy locally produced foods

This may not be for everyone but if we want to consider deeply what sustainability means we have to reexamine many of the assumption of modern agriculture and consider whether they are consistent with how a sustainable society might look like or operate.

Its a common sentiment in mainstream society that organics is a waste of money. One point is that the level of pesticide residues is so low in the produce that it has negligible impact on human health. I don’t reject this assertion with complete confidence but if I can avoid any chance or trace of toxins in my food supply, I will.

Supporting organics is not just about the health of the food supply though, it’s about the larger impact of the practices of conventional farming on the soil, the land, and the groundwater. The health of the workers and families involved in the farms also needs to be considered because many of the pesticides used are toxic to humans as well as pests.

The idea is that organics isn’t just a waste of money, its irrational consumerism. Its bad enough to waste money but to exhibit irrational consumerism – well lets be done with it then. Lets go back to default of allowing the same substances they put in yoga mats into our food supply – to make our bread look better and more fluffy. Because we’re not just talking about organics, we’re trying to encourage people to ask questions about where their food comes and whether these practices are ecologically, socially and even economically sustainable over the long term.

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Is Arcosanti really the “City of the Future?”

Motherboard (a youth oriented hipster styled magazine that is a subset of Vice) recent on October 30s published an article about Arcosanti titled The City of the Future is Hiding in the Arizona Desert. The article featured an interview with Cosanti Foundation President Jeffrey Stein providing the familiar narrative…

The assertion put forward in liberal media like the Atlantic is that “The City of the Future is Already Here” and the mainstream society just hasn’t been looking very well to find it. Arcosanti suffers from a victim complex that its been neglected. Soleri felt he’d been neglected by the mainstream society, depriving him of the funding and support needed to actually build Arcosanti as the Prototype Arcology that he intended in its original founding to be the city of the future. He saw himself as a failure because he didn’t live to see his magnum opus life work fully materialize into a functional Arcology model.

In central Arizona there exists an experimental town called Arcosanti. It’s built on the principles of Arology, which combines architecture and ecology to envision a city that works in tandem with the Earth’s resources. In this short documentary, The Atlantic goes inside this distinctive urban space to understand how Arcosanti plans to reconstruct how humans envision cities. Author: Sam Price-Waldman

There are several ways to address this idea of Arcosanti being the “city of the future.” One is to say its not even a city but a small settlement of 50-70 people, so why are we considering it in much more grandiose terms? It is compact and interesting, and has some aspects of what compact urban living should or even might look in the future, yes but there is no critical mass level of development. This idea of what it will actually take to create a Critical Mass level of development (which was pegged arbitrarily at 500 but I suggest 150 is a good number to consider Arcosanti as a urban model if other goals could be met as well in terms of culture, social, economic development and sustainability) has been talked about (to death actually) but for reasons described more deeply in this essay, its never been achieved. Soleri acknowledged this, making a clear distinction between what it is now and what he aspired it to be as the “world’s first prototype Arcology.” I suspect he wouldn’t agree with the idea of linking Arcosanti to the idea of city or even urban life as it is quite isolated and small in a rural area of the semi-desert of Arizona.

In my view any serious futuristic city model would necessarily would have real ecocity bonafides. It would have many cutting edge sustainable technologies to make it a center of innovation in the green economy and ecological design fields, a “walk the talk” model of sustainable development and living. My tendency is to get a visceral reaction to this kind of portrayal about Arcosanti, because I felt having lived there for over 4 years that real efforts to develop appropriate technologies have never really been encouraged or considered at Arcosanti. Soleri never encouraged these sort of technologies the ones you would expect a sustainable future city to have because its takes away from status as the creator of the Arcology. We got into countless debates about this at School of Thought when he was alive. His argument at the turn of the 21st century, at least, (when solar panels were much more expensive that they are now) was that they had not developed enough to make them practical. He called them “trinkets” as a way to devalue them and their significance.

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Hack Urban Food Event Promises to Empower People Design/Create Solutions to Problems in the Food System

Jimi Carnazza, fellow alumni of Arcosanti Arizona and founder and executive director of Full Circle Earth (join our Facebook page for updates on FCE) has shared with me an update on a upcoming event in the Boston Area.

I thought it might be relevant to those in my network interested in sustainable/local food production and particularly those in the Boston/New England area.

The Nov 14/15th Boston Hack Urban Food Event came to us thanks to an email from Lauren Abda who is the Managing Director of  The Food Loft and Founder of Branchfood.

The event seems to be part of a growing international movement that I have been linked to and been a part of since my time with oneVillage Foundation which was focused on the role of information technologies in the process of developing a global grassroots approach to sustainable development.

A common theme is the fusing together and evolving of approaches of the hacker and open source software movements to create global Peer-2-Peer Networks to empower people to redesign their local economies around this idea of “right livelihood” and conscious living.

Here the focus (and I see similar events going on around the world) is on building a local food economy in Boston around the healthy living and sustainability movements, while incorporating those hacker ideas of how to innovate and rapid prototype within hacker social networks.

Read more about the event below:

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Arcosanti as a Reality TV Show

Given the unique life of the Aconauts some have suggested making Arcosanti life into a Reality TV show. I have discussed this with various people over the years (such as David Tollas and Doctress Neutopia) but this is the first time that I can recall that I am talking about it here. I wanted to discuss that a bit here as it has come up again and I would like to encourage people to look at and consider what this might actually entail.

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Rugged Individualism & Arcosanti

We’ve had a stream of documentaries coming out or being worked on about Soleri and they probably all help to give different and possibly valuable insights about Soleri and his lifework.

Most recently an Italian-American magazine called The American in Italia presented the story of Lisa Scafuro who has been devoting much of her life to another video about Soleri titled The Vision of Paolo Soleri: the Prophet in the Desert.

I’m not sure how this movie portrayed Soleri or Arcosanti but I suspect its another Soleri-centric documentary. I’m still hankering for a true to life documentary and not a PR piece that just shows us the best of Soleri – as many of the documentaries I’ve seen seem to gravitate towards. I’d also like to see more efforts at documenting the many incredible stories of the people that lived at and made Arcosanti Arizona. This leads me to consider some of the deeper issues that may have prevented Arcosanti from being a place where many great minds could have come together to create Arcosanti Critical Mass much sooner than now seems possible.

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Flavio Borrelli and His Struggle as an Architect and Artist to Break Free from the Ordinary & Conventional in Society

Flavio & Siltcast

In May, I traveled to several regions of Europe including Napoli, Italy, where I had the chance to meet Flavio Borrelli again.

A high point of my time at Arcosanti was when a group of us (which included Flavio) would regularly gather behind the Workshop Dorms in the East Crescent after dinner. During that time, we had many wonderful discussions about the things and passions that brought us to Arcosanti.

Flavio and Antonio Chelen Guerra were the lead instigators on the Snake Path (or was it snake pit?). This name stuck, because it moved like a snake from the Minds Garden into the adjacent cliff which towers over the Aqua Fria River (one of the best views at Arcosanti).

The project was controversial because Antonio and Flavio did not follow what the Arcosanti leadership saw as the “proper procedures.” The pace of doing anything at Arcosanti has become very slow. Much of this was out of fear of offending Paolo Soleri or making some mistake which might make the project seem like a laughingstock. Now that Soleri has died many want to make sure we honor his will. But possibly, we can honor him without worrying too much about whether he would approve or not of what we are doing.

During my visit with Flavio, it was hard to avoid the moral and economic crisis in Italy and Europe. Unemployment is high and economic prospects are low. While unemployment is 11.5 percent among the whole society for those under 25 – its around 40 percent. A staggering number and I saw how it affected Flavio and also Simone my friend who I had visited later in Milan. Both live with their parents and job prospects for them are bleak.

Napoli was of the cities in Europe that seemed very much in a struggle with a economy that in severe downturn. Flavio expressed a concern about the state of the economy and lack of opportunity in Southern Europe. While no one would or does really say these countries are in depression, its safe to say that its the worst economic conditions they have faced since WW2 and people are pretty overwhelmed and depressed about the situation.

Yet I saw a glimmer of hope in Flavio’s work. It made me consider the possibility that our creativity and ability to innovate is the real solution to these kinds of economic depressions and the general morass that faces humanity now.

For what is happening in Italy and Southern Europe may well be part of a larger contagion of the human spirit that will eventually spread and infect all of humanity. How we deal with this loss of faith in modern institutions will determine our destiny as a species. Its really a reflection of the loss of purpose, passion and deep drive in the modern world and its belief system. I believe our creative ability to innovate and adapt to challenging situations is the real solution to these kinds of economic depressions not praying for more economic growth and jobs from the power brokers of the global economy.

The pictures here are from the backyard of his Uncle’s house which he is helping to remodel.

One of things that Flavio is doing is refining and developing his own take on Paolo Soleri’s silt casting technique that he learned at Arcosanti.

Soleri used the silt casting technique to make the ceramic bells at Cosanti and then Arcosanti – as a source of income to support his work and vision. He also applied the silt casting technique to the making of concrete precast and poured in place panels in the construction of Arcosanti and Cosanti.

Flavio spoke to me about how he applied and modified this technique. He showed me the material he used and it looked like soil – it was black in color and very different in appearance in the silt I had used at Arcosanti. Silt of course can come in different colors other than the familiar “Southwest Adobe Brick Red” I was familiar with. According to the WikiPedia page on Silt:

silt particles range between 0.0039 to 0.0625 mm, larger than clay but smaller than sand particles.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silt

The “silt” is placed around the form which is made of wood and then once the desire design is in place, color can be added in the form of powdery pigment. Sometimes the pigment is mixed with water to form many different colors.

In 1984, Paolo Soleri published a book with longtime associate and Arcosanti resident Scott M Davis called Earth Casting that explains his silt casting technique in great detail. Silt is used as a molding material that adds a natural element to concrete. To do an Earth Cast the first step is to get the silt and make sure it is the desired consistency. There are many difference ways of adding to silt to concrete. Usually you will add  the silt between the form and where the concrete or plaster is to be poured. Once the desired design is in place, color can be added to the silt by using pigment. The pigments are bought in several base colors as powders. Water is added to the powder to make the pigment so it can be painted onto the silt. Once the water is added to make a liquid, the base or primary colors can be mixed together to get the desired color. Then the pigment is applied to the silt with a brush and allowed to dry. After its dry, a slurry coat can be added to protect the silt cast, during the concrete pour. The concrete pouring concrete should be conscious of the delicacy of the silt cast, because at Arcosanti there are examples of where the silt cast was damaged giving a permanent impression on he ceiling of the crushing of the silt cast. Usually after the pour, we will wait about two weeks until the concrete is strong enough and then remove the form work and see how well the silt cast fared.

What we can see with Flavio’s work is not only the notable talent and creativity, but also a willingness to be creative and different. The panel’s takes Soleri’s concept of creating colorful and abstract panels made with silt to new levels by introducing a whole new style to the technique that has been rarely copied in an artistically compelling way.

The challenge Arcosanti itself faces as it considers its future without its founder and primary driver for all of its history up to now, is how to both honor Soleri (without becoming a museum) and to encourage a culture that embraces (rather than stifles and discouraging it) the creative talent of people like Flavio Borrell and Antonio Chelen to create a new story for Arcosanti in the “Post-Soleri Era.”

May we who are inspired by the work and life of Paolo Soleri, consider such efforts as inspirations in our lives to build a reality of creative work that builds on the legacy of Paolo Soleri.

If we think big and work relentlessly to create the physical and practical reality of that creation, we may indeed be humbled by the possibility of our creation and how that propels us to greatness.

You can see more images of Flavio’s work here

Rethinking Paolo Soleri’s Theory of Arcology

My view is that we are at an interesting intersecting of events and ideas as well as experiences. Possibly this is the real meaning of  the 2012 prophesy? And I know all the skeptics and how they say the predictions are not accurate. I am not an expert on all of this, but what I know is that we have a lot of people who in history and throughout it seemed to attach a lot of significance to these days in which we now find ourselves together in. I feel this also intuitively and I know many others in this world share my feelings.

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